Calvin Johnson ignores the ogre
The longtime DIY musician plays October 2 at Communication. (Photo by Sarah Cass.)
As the founder of K Records and a member of projects including Beat Happening and Dub Narcotic Sound System, Calvin Johnson helped lead a movement that encouraged people to make music and express themselves no matter their level (or lack) of musicianship or what gear they start with. He continues to focus on community, local artists in his home base of Olympia, Washington, and the idea that movement can take place with any given resources, for any amount of time, with any range of ideas and collaboration, as long as there is passion and energy. That spirit was still at work on his 2016 album as Selector Dub Narcotic, This Party Is Just Getting Started, which draws on a range of musical ideas from dub, electronic music, and rock, while capturing the bizarre energy familiar in any of Johnson's work. Johnson is returning to Madison for an October 2 show at Communication as he prepares to release a new solo record, A Wonderful Beast, under his own name.
Ahead of that, we wanted to pick Johnson's brain about the way he's approached music and the music business since the early '80s, and what that approach means today. Perhaps we like to think of Madison's various independent music communities as being active participants in the "passionate revolt against the corporate ogre," as Johnson has described K Records' mission. Whether that's a revolt against promoters' flyer kiosk habits, or the Live Nation monopolization, I can't count the number of conversations I've had with fellow musicians and show goers on the matter, and perhaps you can't count the amount of gripes you've heard from us at Tone Madison.
However, in conversation, Johnson seems less concerned with preaching DIY ethics. Instead, he shares some things he's excited about at home in Olympia—a tape release from an Olympian band, music of local or transient street performers, and the programming of community radio stations in his area. Calvin Johnson also shared some thoughts about his new record which, along with most of his varied output from the last 20 or so years, explores a wide array of sonic territories. He remains proudly in his own world—not aloof, still curious and passionate, but admittedly uninterested in what the corporate ogre is up to.
Tone Madison: Much of your work earlier in your career built on a very specific DIY approach. How do these ethics and tendencies inform your new album and more recent work, considering the resources and technology used on this record?
Calvin Johnson: I work with whatever tools are available to me. Perhaps, what you're implying, is that I'm not always working with the best tools. Or that I haven't utilized them to the best that they could be used. But I feel as though I try to.
Tone Madison: Well, no, it does sound like you are using these tools on the new album. But while having less tools earlier in your career, it was not necessarily the type of tools you had, but using them to their full capacity?
Calvin Johnson: We tried.
Tone Madison: With A Wonderful Beast, where are you coming from with this record, stylistically speaking. When you release music under your own name, I suppose there is less pressure to be boxed into a certain theme...so then, what were some of your goals with A Wonderful Beast?
Calvin Johnson: Well you know it's all just….we're just trying to make some songs. It's just all trial and error and throwing things together and seeing what seems to feel right and on this particular album. Collaborating with Patrick [Carney, of The Black Keys], he just has a lot of good ideas but is very open to hear what I have to say. So I think we've worked well together.
Tone Madison: What's your opinion on The Black Keys and on Patrick Carney's music?
Calvin Johnson: Well you know, he's very passionate. He is stemming from all these different places, but they're similar places to me. Like, we both love rock and roll, but also love weird New Wave and underground music from the '70s and '80s and we're both also very interested in the music that's happening right now. In that way, we have a lot in common musically.
Tone Madison: What is some of your favorite music that's happening right now? What are you excited about?
Calvin Johnson: Well, there is this band here in Olympia that put out a cassette that I thought was pretty good. They're called (Women Of The) Divine Orgasm. And that was a really good tape. And then I like this other group here called American Nudism and they have a new EP that came out on this label called Perennial, and we helped them release it through our distribution network. But yeah, those are a couple local bands I really like a lot.
Tone Madison: You’ve talked in the past about listening to folks on the street singing a cappella. Is that something you still do?
Calvin Johnson: Well, there are a lot of street musicians here in Olympia, and it's fun to hear that. Sometimes I wonder where they came from and where they're going. But when I stop and listen, I don't want to interrupt them and ask them. I'm just going to listen to them for five or 10 minutes and then if they take a moment to talk, then I will talk with them. But I don't want to interrupt them. There are all sorts of people who live on the street. And of course not all people who are playing music on the street live on the street, but some of them do.
Tone Madison: Do you still think there's an element of that being especially punk rock, or do you feel like that was something you associated with street performance when you were younger?
Calvin Johnson: Well, to me it's all about the passion. If people are performing with great passion, then that is what I find exhilarating and interesting. And whether that was music from 50 years ago or music from tomorrow, that's the thing I'm interested in.
Tone Madison: It's obviously a lot easier these days for folks around the country and around the world to share ideas without ever meeting. How did it feel to be in Olympia in the early '80s and see these folks on the other side of the country sharing some of your ideas and ethics, doing similar things with their labels? Labels like Dischord and TeenBeat…
Calvin Johnson: Well, those are two labels that are very dear to my heart. In fact, I was just watching a film on the world wide web that was made by Mark Robinson from TeenBeat. He made a documentary about Dischord—not the label, but the house, where the label used to based out of. And it's a really good documentary, it's less than two minutes long. So it's very inspiring still what both those labels are doing. And whenever I tour out to the east coast, Mark is now in the Cambridge, Massachusetts area and I usually stay at his house. And Dischord is still going strong, stronger than ever. Ian and many of the people from Dischord...I feel honored that many of them attended my show in DC last fall. Of course, it may have been because the opening artist was on their label.
Tone Madison: Was it exciting when K was starting and you were seeing all these folks starting around the same time?
Calvin Johnson: Certainly. K has been inspired by many other labels and continues to be and it's not just necessarily labels that have existed for 30 years, but labels that only exist for six months. They just have a burst of enthusiasm or inspiration and they do something that turns your head and it's great.
Tone Madison: Obviously the college radio station in Olympia was a big thing for you. What do you find is college radio's place these days?
Calvin Johnson: Well, community radio is, I think, a very exciting concept. And that's what KAOS is...it's located at the Evergreen State College but it's really a community radio station which involves the support of the community and the involvement of the community in terms of programming. And I think it's exciting that there are new community radio stations, at least in the Northwest, there have been several new ones in the last ten years. On the Olympic Peninsula, there are two new ones. There's a new station—relatively new, meaning within the last ten years—in Salem, Oregon, in the Puget Sound area up in Bellingham...there are several new community stations. And then on top of that, there's low power radio, another format that allows people access to the airwaves, and I think it's exciting. Exciting that people are grasping this technology and using it to communicate. The beauty of radio is that it is a format of communication. And every format has its pluses and its minuses. And music is just one form of programming on radio. There's all sorts of programming and radio has unique attributes that will always make it relevant to community in a local area. When I'm on tour, I always like to tune in to the local stations if I'm traveling in an automobile.
Tone Madison: It seemed like a few years ago, K was struggling with money and being able to pay artists. Is the label still having trouble with this today or are you feeling more optimistic?
Calvin Johnson: We have never not been struggling with money. That has always been the case and I don't think there's any label that doesn't feel that same thing. So, we're still here, still doing it.
Tone Madison: So at any point with K—as you said there's always been a struggle—and perhaps in your own musical projects as well, how would you keep your DIY ethics in line and keep a good attitude about it throughout all these years? What's your advice?
Calvin Johnson: My advice?
Tone Madison: Or what you've been doing to keep this all happening…
Calvin Johnson: Well, it just seems like there's still a lot to do. So, we're just getting at it.
Tone Madison: There's still more work to be done? Or music to put out?
Calvin Johnson: There's lots of excitement and creative energy and expression flowing, things all still current and exciting. And as long as there's still a passion that I'm excited about, then it is what I do.
Tone Madison: One thing on our minds in Madison: Like plenty of cities around the country, is the rise of Live Nation and monopolized, corporate live music. And we look at places such as Communication, where you'll be playing, as well as other small spaces in our community as people actually really caring and trying to break through this "corporate ogre," as you say. So, this is kind of along the lines of my last question, but what advice do you have for folks who want to work around that and how do you get people to give a shit about what you're doing when you're trying to work around these forces?
Calvin Johnson: Well, you know, for me, I'm living in my own world. The world of major labels and corporate rock clubs and all that...that's a different world and I have nothing to do with that world. It comes and goes and fluctuates and goes through its own cycles. But those people have no interest in me, and correspondingly, I have no interest in them. It works out really well! So I'm just doing my thing and they're doing their thing and….more power to them...whatever works. It really has nothing to do with me. If someone wants to have something to do with it and if they want to beat their head against the wall, then great. But it's not really part of….in my little world, we can't see that far. My interest in art and music and creativity and people having passion and expressing themselves...that might intersect occasionally with this world of commerce, but mostly, it doesn't.
Tone Madison: So you have this big tour and are properly releasing your album soon. What are you most excited about?
Calvin Johnson: I'm excited to play with these people. I have some local folks who have graciously agreed to learn the songs and go on this trip with me. And they're people I've known but I've never played music with them before. I'm excited to get out there and play some shows. And then I've started to work on a new Selector Dub Narcotic record with Smoke, who's the guy that produced my album that came out two years ago—This Party Is Just Getting Started. And so we started working on a new record, so when I get back from this tour, we'll get together and continue working on it.
Tone Madison: Yeah, I was wondering if Dub Narcotic was continuing.
Calvin Johnson: Oh yeah.
Tone Madison: So is that a completely separate entity from this project and album?
Calvin Johnson: Well, I feel like it was really what I wanted to concentrate on. But I had already talked to Patrick about doing this record and I didn't know what this record was going to be like, I just knew that we were going to collaborate in some way. And then when we did, it turned into this Calvin Johnson record, and I thought, "great." I didn't know if a collaboration with Patrick was going to be like a new band that we'd make up ourselves, or if it was going to be Selector Dub Narcotic produced by Patrick, or what. But as we moved along, it just seemed to be a Calvin Johnson record, so Patrick said, "you should release this as Calvin Johnson."